Tuesday, May 21, 2013


Yesterday I watched on my television a group of a few hundred people, consisting mostly of old men from privileged backgrounds, stand up in a large hall and make proclamations about whether or not I should be allowed to get married. Key among them was Sir Gerald Howarth, a Conservative MP who represents Aldershot. Howarth spat out many of the old tropes that have been used to deny equality to gay people since the Victorian period. He referred to the "aggressive homosexual community". MP Edward Leigh said ‘If you dare disagree with the orthodoxy that gay marriage is the best thing since sliced bread, you are breaking a new taboo... The outlandish views of the loony left of the 1980s have now become embedded in high places’. Another MP, Tim Loughton, tried to introduce a bill to allow heterosexual people to have civil partnerships. This was championed as a form of equality, although the real reason was to wreck the gay marriage bill. Mary Douglas complained that there was "no mandate" for the reform, perhaps forgetting that many Tories want a vote on UK's position in the EU, despite the fact that there was "no mandate" for that either. David Burrowes, an evangelical Christian who has been involved with a "gay cure" charity in the past, said that "This is not a marriage bill, it's an unfair dismissal bill" (for registrars and others with conscientious and religious objections)."

I'd produced one of those "bingo cards" so people could tick off the predictable phrases as they were spoken during the debate.

Outside Parliament, what can only be described as a Coven of Hatred held up signs claiming that marriage was between a man and a woman while chanting and wailing in a disturbing chorus.

Sometimes I forget just how much people who have never met me hate me.

I view these Haterz as stupid in many ways - stupid because their arguments can be easily deconstructed - "we're casting aside tradition and it's terrible" - "but who said tradition's always good - what about the tradition of slavery?". But stupid because deep down, they must know that they are going to lose - and that history will not remember them kindly. Perhaps they really do have deeply held religious convictions - but in that case, they're too stupid to understand that religion is pretty much all in the interpretation and you can fix it any way you like. Stupid too because they're arguing about something which is unlikely to have any real impact in their own lives. Nobody's taking their own marriage away. (Clearly) they don't have gay friends. It won't make much difference to them.

A documentary about the moral panic over video nasties in the 1980s I saw recently ended with the message that the right-wing don't care when they lose debates due to times changing. They just cheerfully forget it all and move on to the next thing they can attack. Their only interest is in retaining power and in shaping the national dialogue for the present. It is in their own interests for their defeats to be forgotten, so they can use similar techniques of outrage for the next time. So Tory defence secretary Philip Hammond, on Question Time last week argued that there was no huge demand for gay marriage, and that civil partnerships had dealt with "the very real disadvantage" that gay couples faced, making him sound almost reasonable. Yet he was somewhat stumped when Labour MP Chris Bryant reminded him of his voting record on gay rights saying "I'd accept your argument more if you'd ever voted for an equal age of consent, for gays to be allowed to adopt, for gays in the military to be able to peruse their career or for that matter if you had voted for civil partnerships. "There have been 23 votes in the time you've been in parliament on these issues, on 12 of them you've not even bothered to turn up and on 11 you've voted against." People like Hammond want us to forget how much of a bigot he was in the past, so he can pretend he isn't one now.

And amid all this, on Saturday night, one of my friends, co-incidentally also called Chris(topher) Bryant was walking home after celebrating his birthday with his partner. Chris is the editor of an online gay magazine Polari which I've written articles for a few times. Polari magazine had just done a series of articles to mark IDAHOBIT the International Day Against Homophobia, Biphohia and Transphobia on May 17th, where people had written in with their stories of encountering homophobia.

Shockingly, the couple were attacked by six men who beat and robbed them, yelling "stay down faggot". It's on the front page of today's Independent.

In a world where the most powerful people in the country can stand up, shamelessly in Parliament and use pitifully poor reasons to deny gay people a basic right to equality, it is hardly surprising that just a few miles away, unexpected, unprovoked physical violence can be committed against gay people. It is hard to see how the two are not linked. Yet it is these bigots who complain about gay people being aggressive and having their own rights (the right to hate others) being taken away. I wonder if Hammond, Haworth and Loughton have ever been physically beaten or screamed at just for being heterosexual. I wonder if they have had the word "straight" used as an insult on them, or if they have heard it used routinely around them, as I heard one of the students in my department use the word "gay" as an insult, outside my office yesterday. For them to talk about the "aggressive homosexual community" would be funny - if it wasn't for pictures like the one on the front of the Independent.

Philip Hammond, Gerald Howarth, Edward Leigh, Mary Douglas, Tim Loughton. They're middle-aged. I'd be surprised if any of them are around in 35-50 years time. But I hope their names won't be forgotten. If we are to improve as a species, we must not forget our worst exemplars of humanity - what we are capable of, so we can avoid making those mistakes again.

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Ten Thoughts on Homes Under The Hammer in reverse order of importance

Homes Under the Hammer is my guilty pleasure. Its premise is dangerously simple. We follow the winners of house auctions as they transform dumps into palaces, and then feel slightly sick at home much profit they've made. If it was a drug it would be heroin - a big warm blanket of wellbeing, taking you out of yourself and letting the world outside pass by un-noticed. (I'm relying on Russell Brand's description here as that's a particular experience I'm not especially interested in having). As it's a Daytime TV show, I only get to watch Homes Under the Hammer when I'm either ill or on holiday with nothing much planned. Watching it therefore feels like the height of indulgence. It is not enlightening, barely educational and quite possibly very bad for you.

1. The music. I don't mean the title music but the auditory puns that appear to be obligatory every twenty seconds. If one of the auction winners happens to be a builder called Jack, you know they'll play "This is the House that Jack Built". If a house is near an underground station, they'll play "Sound of the Underground". If a room has large windows they'll play "Sunny". I love it when cool songs like Amy Winehouse's "You Know That I'm No Good" are forever ruined by association. I often wonder who has the job of deciding which music to play. And what their life must be like. Do they wake up screaming?

2. The strange way that the male presenter, Martin Roberts, holds his hands together and in front of him. It makes me wonder if he's in pain, or just very self conscious and can't decide what to do with them.

3. The permanently upbeat nature of BOTH presenters, especially Lucy Alexander. I wonder if she switches it off once the cameras stop. I hope so.

4. The mixed up order that the filming takes place. Presumably to save time, they first of all film an auction, then go with one of the winners to look at the house they've won. But they pretend it hasn't been won yet, so we first see the filming of the empty "unsold" house, then see the auction, then we meet the owner. Isn't telly clever our mam!

5. I like to pretend I am an historian from about 400 years in the future watching the programme in order to research the cultural conventions and "everyday lives" of early 21st century folk. I make mental notes like "People in this era liked neutral colours, still suffered from male pattern baldness and did not need a teleport room".

6. Behind almost every house that gets won at auction is the hidden ghastliness of someone else's doomed life - probably an elderly person who has recently died or some hapless renter who got caught in a spiral of debt, addiction and petty crime. We never get to meet the previous occupants of the house (they have been swept out of existence) but there are clues... so many clues... and for me that's a huge part of the awful fun of the programme. Seeing the squalor of a kitchen that also has a bath in it, or a filthy 1970s sofa with a little vase of dusty plastic flowers on a nearby table... Looking at tabby-vomit carpets that even the jolly presenters can't find a nice word for... And imagining the lives of those occupants, then playing their fates on fast-forward reverse-rewind - from the moment they are buried or incarcerated to the point when they moved into the property, all smiles and optimism. And the "journey" in between those two points. It's a stark reminder of the depressingly real lives that people in this rich rich country must endure. And like the sexism and indoor smoking on Mad Men, it's never properly brought to our attention. We have to "decode" it ourselves. Who knew Homes Under the Hammer was such a damningly subtle critique of the precariousness of modern life?

7. And the other side of the coin is the winners - inevitably dreary middle-class, middle-aged heterosexual couples who are about to make even more money... builder Dads and their lucky non-university going sons who are going to be sheltered from the recession, and immigrant investors of course. When someone with a bad haircut, no dress sense and a slightly common accent shows up with £400,000 cash and admits they were previously in banking, you end up wondering if you're in the wrong job.

8. Will we ever sicken of seeing makeovers of any description? The "money shot" almost literally of the programme is when we revisit the homes after they've been bought, and whoosh! That lounge which looks like a messy mass suicide took place on the set of Abigail's Party is now a beige and cream minimalist migraine - all redone with bits and pieces from the remaindered corner of Wickes. I especially like it when the "before" is clearly better than the "after", or the auction winners have been lazy and done absolutely no improvement work at all.

9.The national nature of the show means that no stone is left uncovered - so at one point we're in some leafy West London suburb where a one bedroom flat above a hairdressers with no windows is three quarters of a million pounds, then we're in an ex-mining community in County Durham and a three bedroom house with large garden will put you back £20,000. Every episode shows the country slowly sinking further and further into that north-south inequality divide. Again, nobody really brings this up on the show. But our future historians will find this fascinating and it will help explain the Civil War of 2134 perfectly.

10. Who said it's not educational (me!) I was wrong. Knock down that partition wall. Put decking in the garden. Take the pine panelling off the walls. Don't have a boiler in the bedroom. Kitchens need updating every 4 months as they always end up looking "dated". Beige carpets always win. My "doer-up" skill has raised from 23 to 54 since watching the show. Heroin of tv I say!

Saturday, May 04, 2013

Not a vicious review

I was kind of dreading watching new ITV sitcom Vicious, despite liking retro. Vicious is just like a 1970s sitcom, filmed in an obvious set, with studio laughter and comedy gay stereotypes - played by Derek Jacobi and Sir Ian McKellen. This long-standing, ageing gay couple are an only slightly updated version of the 1960s camp radio pair Julian and Sandy, with lineage to Larry Grayson and John Inman of the 1970s. Piss-elegant, melodramatic, bitchy, vain, delusional and somewhat predatory, they embody almost every Daily Mail stereotype about gay men ever spat out over the last 50 years. As third wheel, Frances de la Tour plays their faithful fag hag, a role that she has been preparing her entire career for. When a handsome young man moves in upstairs, how we will laugh at the tragic way these two vicious queens and their hag pointlessly fight over him. The curtains in their living room are always drawn (because daylight is so cruel on withered skin, as Blanche Dubois first told us), Mother is always on the phone, there's a 20 year old dog called Balthazar about to join a half dozen urns of previous dogs on the mantlepiece and the pair trade quips about their cataracts, failed careers and the humble working class beginnings that they struggle to hide. "You're from Wigan!" "Oh you bitch!"

But it's all been done before though - as the 1960s film based on a play, Staircase, starring similarly respectable actors Rex Harrison and Richard Burton as the couple in question. Although that film was disliked at the time, and pretty much sank without trace, some of its put-downs are outrageously funny, and there's enough pathos to slightly elevate it above mere slapcampstick. It's perhaps surprising that it's taken all this time to come full circle, although perhaps not. I was prepared to hate Vicious. But I couldn't. Sure, the main characters are not likeable or good PR for the gay community, but I no longer feel that any single gay character on tv is having to do the work of fully representing all gay people who ever lived. When, finally, a 7ft tall, black, NBA player can come out of the closet and the world doesn't come to an end, when my nephew can tell members of his class "My uncles are gay and there's nothing wrong with that!" when some random child tells him he's gay, then perhaps we can view Vicious as silly, camp fun and not get too upset about its political ramifications. We will never move to being "post-gay" (whatever that means), but I suspect that in a couple of decades we will be "post-gay-rights" (at least in the West), and my nephew won't have to make any defensive statements because gay won't even be an insult. We are not there yet, but it's coming.

I've never met anyone exactly like the characters in Vicious in real life - as stereotypes they're total exaggerations of course, but I do recognise little glimpses of them in other people, and sometimes in bits of myself. But their bickering also reminds me of plenty of long-term heterosexual couples I've seen arguing while "in company". Vanity and delusion are clearly not the province of gay people - and the most predatory person in the programme is actually the heterosexual woman. I guess I feel that Jacobi and McKellen are slightly wasted on these sorts of roles - after one episode they feel somewhat one-dimensional and predictable. I'm not sure that an ITV sitcom format will even allow character complexity to develop, or whether it even should. But I will continue to watch. If anything, it's a respite from the parade of beautiful under 30s who it's impossible to escape from on telly.